Ritual or Rote?

seagulls-008“Tradition” is a dirty word in some circles, but for others, it is practically sacred. Some eye anything repeated with suspicion while others fear the new and different. I recently heard a story that demonstrates the beauty of meaningful tradition.

Every Friday afternoon an older man would carry a bucket of shrimp to a particular spot on a pier in Florida. The shrimp weren’t for eating or fishing or for crabbing; they had a different purpose. As soon as he arrived in his spot, the sea gulls would take notice and swarm him. He fed the shrimp to the gulls, one at a time, until his bucket was empty. Then he returned home.

What was the purpose behind this strange ritual?

The man was Air Force Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. In World War II, he and 7 comrades were flying a B-17 across the Pacific to deliver a message to General MacArthur when the plane went down into the ocean. These eight men had to survive on a tiny life raft. When their emergency rations were exhausted, the men knew their situation was bleak.

After a period of prayer followed by a nap, Rickenbacker awoke to a sea gull landing on his head. He knew that if he could catch the gull, they could survive. He reacted quickly, caught the gull, and the men now had meat and fishing supplies that sustained them until help arrived.

When the war was over, Rickenbacker made a tradition of going to the beach to feed the gulls as his way of saying, “Thank you, God.”

Tradition, when infused with meaning, purpose, and feeling, is a beautiful thing. Tradition divorced from its meaning is an empty shell of a thing. If our worship is infused with meaning and passion, it can be a beautiful ritual. If it is mindlessly offered and repeated, it will become a worn-out rote.